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Schroeder Still Not On Board Iraqi War

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reaffirmed his opposition to war on Iraq on Wednesday, saying he still believes Saddam Hussein can be disarmed peacefully.

"What we are working for is to ensure that this great task in Iraq can be accomplished without a military confrontation," Schroeder told a rally of his Social Democratic party in his home state of Lower Saxony, where state elections are being held Feb. 2.

Schroeder's latest remarks contrasted with strong indications from Britain and France this week that they are preparing for a possible war. Schroeder has ruled out sending German combat troops and has publicly opposed a war for months.

His stand helped Schroeder narrowly win re-election last September — and drew applause and cheers during Wednesday's campaign speech attended by about 2,000 people in this North Sea town.

"We want to use all out strength" to prevent a war, Schroeder told the gathering.

Schroeder's government argues that ousting Saddam by force would further inflame the Middle East and harm the U.S.-led war on terrorism, in which German soldiers are participating.

Attention has focused on Germany's position since it began a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 1, which carries the risk of diplomatic isolation if Berlin refused to back a war authorization by the council.

However, Schroeder has left open how Germany might vote, saying it is too early to speculate. Germany's seat does not give it veto power.

On Tuesday, Britain said it was sending a force of navy vessels and marines to the Mediterranean to train for possible action in the Gulf. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government also said it was mobilizing 1,500 reserve soldiers, with more likely to follow.

President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday called on French troops to be ready for deployment, the strongest hint yet that France would take part in military action against Iraq.

Schroeder's appearance was his first in the campaign for Lower Saxony, where his party is in a tough battle to retain control of the statehouse.